On June 1, four states—North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming—passed laws granting legal immunity to businesses at risk for COVID-19 lawsuits. Three other states are expected to follow in the upcoming weeks. Although many states have already granted immunity to health care facilities, these bills go further, protecting grocery stores, banks, and other “essential businesses” from legal action. Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming grants immunity to all businesses, unless they explicitly broke the law. After these bills passed state legislatures, colleges and universities submitted a request to Congress asking for immunity. Other industries are sure to follow.
As states try their best to jump-start local economies after stay-at-home orders closed all non-essential businesses, protecting businesses from an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits sounds wise. But is it?
Bruce Stern, president of the American Association for Justice, wrote in USA Today that granting immunity to businesses will cause more people to get sick—prolonging the coronavirus outbreak as well as the economic downturn.
“Blanket legal immunity will prolong the pandemic, with some businesses inevitably forgoing basic precautions,” Stern wrote. “Workers and consumers will not return to offices, stores and restaurants if companies cannot be held accountable when they fail to prioritize health and safety. If no one is responsible, no one is safe. People will not go back to their normal routines if they don’t feel safe.”
Stern argues that a flood of lawsuits against businesses is unlikely, since proving a business acted irresponsibly, and that the irresponsible actions spread coronavirus, will be difficult. But employers who know they cannot be sued may be less likely to abide by strict safety protocols, such as requiring masks and other Personal Protection Equipment, enforcing social distancing rules, and encouraging sick employees to stay home. This will lead to more people getting sick, which translates to lost work hours and reduced productivity. If the public knows local businesses cannot be held legally accountable for ignoring safety protocols, they are less likely to patronize those businesses out of fear that they are unsafe. This will prolong the economic slump, rather than jump-start state economies.
Also, a sick employee who was threatened with job loss if they called in will have no legal recourse. Neither will the families of COVID-19 victims whose employers were careless. Few Americans think that’s fair: the Hart Research fund recently released a poll in which 64 percent of respondents opposed guaranteed immunity for businesses. The opposition was consistent across party lines, with a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents saying they did not support such legislation.
While COVID-19 lawsuits are few and far between, examples of businesses behaving recklessly are numerous. In North Carolina, the Smithfield food plant offered bonuses to workers who didn’t call off work after several employees contracted coronavirus. Is it unreasonable to speculate that such bonuses enticed workers to come in sick? After hundreds of employees at a Tyson Foods plant in Indiana got sick with the virus, the plant suspended operations—for one day only. Shortly after re-opening, the plant closed again for deep-cleaning and sanitation. But it seemed like too little, too late: 890 Tyson employees had already tested positive for COVID-19.
Most of America has come together to do their part in stopping the spread of coronavirus. However, there is no doubt that some employers have acted irresponsibly. These businesses should be held legally responsible for actions that sickened workers and patrons, leading to even greater economic loss.